Who can understand the Bible?

bible5.gifIt ain’t the parts of the Bible that I can’t understand that bother me, it is the parts that I do understand.Mark Twain

The Bible can be challenging to understand.  66 books, 1,189 chapters, 31,173 verses, ~40 authors over a 1,500 year period, etc.  But that doesn’t mean that it isn’t accessible.  As Twain noted, some things are very clear.  The parts that aren’t as clear take a little more work to understand. 

The letters in the New Testament were written to real people.  They didn’t have to get a priest to figure out what the author meant.  It wasn’t like the Ephesians got their letter and said, “I have no idea what he is talking about!”

Of course, there are many cultural things and a lot of background information that can help us understand the Bible better.  It is a large book so it can be overwhelming at times.  Solid teaching and preaching are important, but you can learn much on your own as well.  Here are some Bible study tips

One of the easiest things to do is focus on what you do understand and not just what you don’t understand.  Make a list of questions and seek answers later if you like, but don’t let that stop you from reading.

I always liked this passage in Acts 8, and especially v. 31 where the Ethiopian says what so many of us think: How can we understand the Bible unless someone explains it to us?  God made sure the Gospel got to someone who truly wanted to hear it.  Who knows what impact the Ethiopian man had when he returned home with the Good News?  Are we doing our part of spreading the Gospel and taking what we know to lost people?

26 Now an angel of the Lord said to Philip, “Go south to the road—the desert road—that goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza.” 27 So he started out, and on his way he met an Ethiopian eunuch, an important official in charge of all the treasury of Candace, queen of the Ethiopians. This man had gone to Jerusalem to worship, 28 and on his way home was sitting in his chariot reading the book of Isaiah the prophet. 29 The Spirit told Philip, “Go to that chariot and stay near it.”

30 Then Philip ran up to the chariot and heard the man reading Isaiah the prophet. “Do you understand what you are reading?” Philip asked.

31 “How can I,” he said, “unless someone explains it to me?” So he invited Philip to come up and sit with him.

32 The eunuch was reading this passage of Scripture: “He was led like a sheep to the slaughter, and as a lamb before the shearer is silent, so he did not open his mouth.

33 In his humiliation he was deprived of justice. Who can speak of his descendants? For his life was taken from the earth.”

34 The eunuch asked Philip, “Tell me, please, who is the prophet talking about, himself or someone else?” 35 Then Philip began with that very passage of Scripture and told him the good news about Jesus.

36 As they traveled along the road, they came to some water and the eunuch said, “Look, here is water. Why shouldn’t I be baptized?” 38 And he gave orders to stop the chariot. Then both Philip and the eunuch went down into the water and Philip baptized him. 39 When they came up out of the water, the Spirit of the Lord suddenly took Philip away, and the eunuch did not see him again, but went on his way rejoicing. 40 Philip, however, appeared at Azotus and traveled about, preaching the gospel in all the towns until he reached Caesarea.

The Holy Bible : New International Version. 1996, c1984. Grand Rapids: Zondervan.

I like to use that passage to encourage people to take Bible studies.  In many areas of life we take classes and lessons to get better at something – golf, computers, math, etc.  But when it comes to the Bible many people think they need to know about it before going to a class.  They are embarrassed to admit that they are Christians and don’t know the Bible well.  But today is always a great day to start studying it.

P.S. Beware of churches or denominations that insist that you can’t understand the Bible without them giving their official interpretation of it to you.  Some churches actually discourage people from reading it on their own. 

Stars, sand and how to read the Bible

universe.jpgA recent commenter on my other blog viewed Genesis 15:5 as evidence that the Bible has errors.  The context is God promising Abraham that despite his advanced age he would have many offspring.

Genesis 15:5 He took him outside and said, “Look up at the heavens and count the stars—if indeed you can count them.” Then he said to him, “So shall your offspring be.”

Here is what the commenter wrote:

There God promises Abraham to make his offspring as numerous as the stars. Referring to the visible stars only would not make any sense as we can see only a few thousands. But it cannot refer to the actually existing stars either, because there are about 200 billion in our Milky Way alone. 200 billion people could not possibly live on Earth, let alone Jews!

And I am not even talking about the stars in all the other galaxies. This is only one example. The bible abounds with errors great and small.

I think his interpretation of that verse would make a literalist fundy blush. 

First, since we always want to read things in context here are some other verses referring to the promises of Abraham’s offspring:

Genesis 22:17 I will surely bless you and make your descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and as the sand on the seashore. Your descendants will take possession of the cities of their enemies . . .

Genesis 32:12 But you have said, ‘I will surely make you prosper and will make your descendants like the sand of the sea, which cannot be counted.’”

God mentions Abraham’s offspring as being as numerous as the stars, then the stars and the sand, then the sand.  

So the question is, “What’s the point of these passages?”  Was God trying to make a precise statement of exactly how many offspring Abraham would have?  Was He saying that the number of stars is exactly equal to the number of grains of sand? 

Or is it possible that He was saying that not only would Abraham have one child – a highly unlikely scenario by itself – but that Abraham would have many, many descendants – physically and spiritually?

More importantly, go back in history and see how many stars people used to think existed, and how the Bible was far ahead of its time. As the commenter noted, we can only observe thousands of stars, and several thousand years ago they could view less than that.

But God knew that there were far more than that. Again, the point of the passage was the promise to Abraham, not a science lesson. But the fact remains that the earliest Bible writings asserted that there were far more stars than people thought – as many as there are grains of sand on the beach.

I think an unbiased person would see that the passage was obviously a promise that Abraham would have a great number of descendants and that there are far more stars than we can see – in fact, so many that counting them would be like counting grains of sand. And that is a claim that was thousands of years ahead of its time. Why not give the Bible a little credit for knowing that there are countless stars?

Study Bibles

bible.jpgI’ve encouraged a couple commenters to consider study Bibles, so I thought I’d get a little more specific.

My wife’s favorite (and hey, she’s a librarian!) is the Quest Study Bible.  It has lots of the most common questions addressed in the sidebars.  I like it, too.

The Life Application Study Bible is my mainstay.  It has thousands of explanatory notes, tables, maps, definitions, book introductions, profiles of major characters, etc. 

All those links are for the New International Version (NIV), a very popular translation.  All of the verses I’ve memorized are from the NIV so I’ll switch translations when they pry it out of my cold, dead hands. 

Seriously, there are a lot of good translations out there.   I know some people get very passionate about their personal favorite. 

I am not a big fan of The Message (a broad paraphrase Bible), but if it is your favorite please don’t leave me any nasty comments.  If you want a paraphrase Bible I’d go with the New Living Translation. 

Study Bibles can be extraordinarily helpful, especially if you are new to the Bible.  I always remember that the text of the Bible is most important and was inspired by God and that the explanatory notes were not.  But that doesn’t mean they aren’t important to help us understand the context of the passages, who was writing, to whom they were writing, links to other passages, etc.

Even if you aren’t a believer the Bible can be a fascinating book to study.

Itching ears

Many people – including self-proclaimed Christians, surprisingly enough – claim that the Bible is unreliable because of its age and how it was assembled.  They use terms like “bronze age mythology” or “old words” or some such thing.  The theme is that if the words are old then they have lesser or no value.But consider the implications: Does that mean that words have an expiration date?  Are they somehow better when new?  I think that older words may convey more truth, on average, because they have stood the test of time (that’s a generality, of course – what really matters is whether the words are true or not).

If God inspired the words then they would be timeless, of course.

I imagine that every generation thought this verse was written just for them, and ours is no different:

2 Timothy 4:3 For the time will come when men will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear.

Old Testament God / New Testament God?

A common misperception about the Bible is that there are two Gods at work, or that somehow God was trying to improve his reputation in the New Testament (NT).  The typical refrain is that the Old Testament (OT) God was vengeful and the New Testament God is loving and kind. A balanced reading of the whole Bible shows what God is really like. To adequately understand God, you can’t reduce your understanding to a bumper-sticker saying such as “God is love.” Yes, love is one of God’s attributes, but He is a whole lot more.

People who make that claim don’t know the Bible well at all.  Jesus talks about Hell much more than the OT does.  And God displays his mercy, forgiveness and patience over and over in the OT.

If one is selective in what Scriptures they use, one could make the opposite case – namely, that the Old Testament God is more forgiving. After all, Jesus talked much more about Hell than the Old Testament does. God gives evil nations hundreds of years to repent, and destroys or drives them out only when they are completely irredeemable. And God is quick to forgive the Israelites over and over. Consider this passage where God is so quick to forgive Ahab, generally considered the most evil of Israel’s kings:

1 Kings 21:25-29 (There was never a man like Ahab, who sold himself to do evil in the eyes of the Lord, urged on by Jezebel his wife. He behaved in the vilest manner by going after idols, like the Amorites the Lord drove out before Israel.) When Ahab heard these words, he tore his clothes, put on sackcloth and fasted. He lay in sackcloth and went around meekly. Then the word of the Lord came to Elijah the Tishbite: “Have you noticed how Ahab has humbled himself before me? Because he has humbled himself, I will not bring this disaster in his day, but I will bring it on his house in the days of his son.”

Also consider these passages:

Exodus 22:21-27 “Do not mistreat an alien or oppress him, for you were aliens in Egypt. “Do not take advantage of a widow or an orphan. If you do and they cry out to me, I will certainly hear their cry. My anger will be aroused, and I will kill you with the sword; your wives will become widows and your children fatherless. “If you lend money to one of my people among you who is needy, do not be like a moneylender; charge him no interest. If you take your neighbor’s cloak as a pledge, return it to him by sunset, because his cloak is the only covering he has for his body. What else will he sleep in? When he cries out to me, I will hear, for I am compassionate.

Leviticus 19:18 “‘Do not seek revenge or bear a grudge against one of your people, but love your neighbor as yourself. I am the Lord.

Then consider a sample of Jesus’ words in Matthew.  

Matthew 11:20-24 Then Jesus began to denounce the cities in which most of his miracles had been performed, because they did not repent. “Woe to you, Korazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! If the miracles that were performed in you had been performed in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes. But I tell you, it will be more bearable for Tyre and Sidon on the day of judgment than for you. And you, Capernaum, will you be lifted up to the skies? No, you will go down to the depths. If the miracles that were performed in you had been performed in Sodom, it would have remained to this day. But I tell you that it will be more bearable for Sodom on the day of judgment than for you.”

Jesus also said:
• Matthew 8:12 But the subjects of the kingdom will be thrown outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”
• Matthew 13:42 They will throw them into the fiery furnace, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.
• Matthew 13:50 and throw them into the fiery furnace, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.
• Matthew 22:13 “Then the king told the attendants, ‘Tie him hand and foot, and throw him outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’
• Matthew 24:51 He will cut him to pieces and assign him a place with the hypocrites, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.
• Matthew 25:30 And throw that worthless servant outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.
• Luke 13:28 “There will be weeping there, and gnashing of teeth, when you see Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and all the prophets in the kingdom of God, but you yourselves thrown out.

Finally, consider the key message of the early church and how the Gospel spread. The Book of Acts, which chronicled the early church, doesn’t mention the word “love” one time. It does have a consistent message of “repent and believe,” and uses reason and signs and wonders to convince people of the truth of the Gospel.  It is all the same God, from beginning to end.  Perfect justice, mercy, wrath and love. 

Who can understand the Bible?

bible5.gifBeware of churches or denominations the insist that you can’t understand the Bible without them giving their official interpretation of it to you.  Some churches actually discourage people from reading it on their own. 

But remember that the letters in the New Testament, for example, were written to real people.  They didn’t have to get a priest to figure out what the author meant.  It wasn’t like the Ephesians got their letter and said, “I have no idea what he is talking about!”

Of course, there are many cultural things and a lot of background information that can help us understand the Bible better.  It is a large book so it can be overwhelming at times.  Solid teaching and preaching are important, but you can learn much on your own as well.  Here are some Bible study tips.

I always liked this passage in Acts 8, and especially v. 31 where the Ethiopian says what so many of us think: How can we understand the Bible unless someone explains it to us?  God made sure the Gospel got to someone who truly wanted to hear it.  Who knows what impact the Ethiopian man had when he returned home with the Good News?  Are we doing our part of spreading the Gospel and taking what we know to lost people?

26 Now an angel of the Lord said to Philip, “Go south to the road—the desert road—that goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza.” 27 So he started out, and on his way he met an Ethiopian eunuch, an important official in charge of all the treasury of Candace, queen of the Ethiopians. This man had gone to Jerusalem to worship, 28 and on his way home was sitting in his chariot reading the book of Isaiah the prophet. 29 The Spirit told Philip, “Go to that chariot and stay near it.”

30 Then Philip ran up to the chariot and heard the man reading Isaiah the prophet. “Do you understand what you are reading?” Philip asked.

31 “How can I,” he said, “unless someone explains it to me?” So he invited Philip to come up and sit with him.

32 The eunuch was reading this passage of Scripture: “He was led like a sheep to the slaughter, and as a lamb before the shearer is silent, so he did not open his mouth.

33 In his humiliation he was deprived of justice. Who can speak of his descendants? For his life was taken from the earth.”

34 The eunuch asked Philip, “Tell me, please, who is the prophet talking about, himself or someone else?” 35 Then Philip began with that very passage of Scripture and told him the good news about Jesus.

36 As they traveled along the road, they came to some water and the eunuch said, “Look, here is water. Why shouldn’t I be baptized?” 38 And he gave orders to stop the chariot. Then both Philip and the eunuch went down into the water and Philip baptized him. 39 When they came up out of the water, the Spirit of the Lord suddenly took Philip away, and the eunuch did not see him again, but went on his way rejoicing. 40 Philip, however, appeared at Azotus and traveled about, preaching the gospel in all the towns until he reached Caesarea.

The Holy Bible : New International Version. 1996, c1984. Grand Rapids: Zondervan.

Why the New Testament is Scripture

bible3.jpgNote: This is written more for Christians who deny the validity of New Testament books than it is for skeptics (though all are welcome).   

It is popular to dismiss the following passage as not applying to the New Testament since it had not been officially canonized at that time.  However, many letters were already in circulation in the early church and were accepted as authoritative.  Remember that this was Paul’s last letter, written from prison in Rome before he was beheaded.

2 Timothy 3:16-17 All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.

If God “breathes” Scripture then this passage could easily apply to letters not yet canonized or even written.  He’s omniscient, remember? 

Jesus promised that the disciples would testify about him (that could have just been orally, but it seems pretty obvious that it would eventually be written down).

John 15:26-27 “When the Counselor comes, whom I will send to you from the Father, the Spirit of truth who goes out from the Father, he will testify about me. And you also must testify, for you have been with me from the beginning.”

In 1 Timothy 5:18 Paul appears to quote Luke 10:7 (“for the worker deserves his wages”) as Scripture, though it is possible that it came from a summary of verses in Deuteronomy.

1 Timothy 5:18 For the Scripture says, “Do not muzzle the ox while it is treading out the grain,” and “The worker deserves his wages.”

Peter referred to Paul as writing with “the wisdom that God gave him” and considered Paul’s writings to be scripture.

2 Peter 3:15-17 Bear in mind that our Lord’s patience means salvation, just as our dear brother Paul also wrote you with the wisdom that God gave him. He writes the same way in all his letters, speaking in them of these matters. His letters contain some things that are hard to understand, which ignorant and unstable people distort, as they do the other Scriptures, to their own destruction. Therefore, dear friends, since you already know this, be on your guard so that you may not be carried away by the error of lawless men and fall from your secure position.

Check out Paul’s letters and note how he claimed to be an Apostle of Jesus.  He obviously thought he was speaking for God.  So either he was speaking for God or he was a big liar or some sort of crazy person.

Some Christians claim that since the Bible didn’t include a specific notation of which 66 books belonged then we can’t be sure of what belongs.  But even if it did make that claim these same folks would probably say it is circular reasoning.  And I’ve noticed that these people are quick to say, “It is God’s word” then launch into 17 bad reasons they think it isn’t.  Credibility factor = zero.

Some people have read too much of the DaVinci Code and think the canonization process was politicized.  But most of the books in the Bible were selected without dispute.  The early church had viewed them as authoritative for some time. 

The same God who inspired the Scripture was quite capable of inspiring which books to include.  If Christians hold a different view then I kindly ask them to let me know what to take out and which books to add – provided they can convince me why their own personal canonization process trumps that of the God of the universe.

Lots more here about how the NT canon was compiled.  Christians who say things like, “But the Bible doesn’t say these 66 books were to be part of the Bible” should read it.  Even if the Bible did mention which books to include then the same critics would cry “circular reasoning.”  And these same critics have no problem quoting the parts they like as being fully authoritative and “God’s word.”